From Bevs to Bud: Theory Wellness VP on Leaving Craft Beer for Cannabis
Matt Gamble spent nearly a decade working across all three tiers of the beer industry before he left to become one of the earliest employees at Massachusetts-based Theory Wellness.
During his time in the beer industry, Gamble helped build the Clown Shoes beer brand as the director of operations, where he oversaw national sales, accounting, purchasing, and logistics. After nearly five years, Gamble moved over to the distribution side of the business, serving as the operations manager for Massachusetts Beverage Alliance, a statewide network of beer wholesalers that sell specialty craft beer offerings.
But years of long days and even longer nights at sampling and promotional events began to wear on Gamble, who had recently given up drinking in a quest to live a healthier life.
In early 2017, Gamble was offered an opportunity to join Theory Wellness, a small vertically-integrated cannabis company with recreational and medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts.
At the time, Theory Wellness employed just six people. That figure has since grown to around 150 under Gamble, the vice president of operations.
In an interview with THCnet, Gamble discusses his experience in the marijuana business, and shares his thoughts on why other CPG professionals should consider a career in cannabis.
The following exchange has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
THCnet: Why did you decide to enter the cannabis industry?
Matt Gamble: In the background of my beer career, I had always been a cannabis user. I soon found myself very interested in the cultivation and extraction side of the business. So, I got into home cannabis extraction, and started learning about the chemical properties of the plant. I was also approaching my third year at Massachusetts Beverage Alliance, and the legal cannabis industry was beginning to take off in Massachusetts.
At the time, I was falling out of love with beer. I had stopped drinking almost completely, and found cannabis to be the best alternative for my health. The thing I loved so much about the beer business was the connection to bringing some kind of betterment to someone’s life -- making someone’s day better through the production or distribution of a product. But I started seeing and feeling the negative effects of alcohol, and after 9 or 10 years of eating, sleeping and breathing the craft beer industry, I took a really hard look at what I wanted to do. For me, it was about helping people have a better life through cannabis.
THCnet: What experience or skills from your time in the beer industry have carried over?
MG: Part of what was attractive to me about cannabis was that I thought the skillset you needed to be successful in beer would be similar. There is a tremendous amount of soon-to-be-shared knowledge between the two industries. If you think about the structure of operating a consumer goods business, and if you look at a vertically-integrated cannabis business, there are multiple levels that are similar to the businesses represented in the beer manufacturing and distribution industries.
I’ve tried to pull from the companies I worked with, and apply those skills to cannabis in a way that respects the unique nature of the plant, but also accomplishes the business goals. Handling and processing techniques are the same, and there are similarities in the way that you distribute and manage the business that are relatable. The primary difference is that the beer industry has had almost 100 years to figure it out.
THCnet: What’s been the hardest part of transitioning into cannabis?
MG: There are not a whole lot of established methods, protocols, techniques or equipment, so we have to be agile and respond to all of the challenges that we face in a positive way so that we can continue to grow. Starting from scratch was very hard, and so having people come into a company where you don’t have established processes for anything. You have an unknown amount of foreseeable problems that will derail you because you are doing something you have never done before.
Those are the biggest challenges, but also the biggest motivators. There are huge learning opportunities for people and that is one of the best things about the industry. The cultivation of cannabis on a commercial scale is still a relatively new thing. You have to have a strong work ethic, a positive attitude and a willingness to learn. The people that have an open mind and are willing to learn along the way are the ones who will have the most success.
THCnet: What is something you wish you knew before you got into cannabis?
MG: There’s a lot of technical stuff, of course, but I really wish I knew just how much it helps people. Before I got a chance to meet medical patients through Theory Wellness, if I understood the laundry list of pharmaceuticals that it can replace and side effects it can eliminate for people, I would have gotten into the industry a lot faster than I did.
THCnet: How does the cannabis industry compare to beer?
MG: There are certain components that are still very much post-prohibition. I’d say it’s similar to the late 90s or early 2000s of craft beer. That nascent stage where so many brands are about to explode. It’s almost like if you took the craft beer industry of the 2000s, and brought it all the way back to the 1930s when prohibition was repealed. Cannabis brands know what to do -- using craft beer’s model for success -- and we are just waiting for the pathway to do it as laws and regulations change.
THCnet: Which markets or companies are you watching closely?
MG: I am always keeping an eye on markets that have a head start on us. The whole industry is very innovative and focused, and there are a whole host of different technologies. There are different ways to repackage the flower and change the experience, and that’s one of the most exciting things. There are thousands of companies out there trying to push the boundaries of what cannabis represents to people.
THCnet: How do you see the industry evolving over the next 12-24 months?
MG: Federal legalization is the looming cloud over everyone’s plans. We have Plan A through Plan Z trying to prepare for what might happen because people don’t know what federal legalization would even look like. It is important to stay agile, so you can respond based on how the federal government decides to move forward. We want to remain flexible and open, and personally, I hope that federal legalization happens sooner rather than later because I know there are a lot of people out there that have no access to safe cannabis.
THCnet: How big of an opportunity is cannabis, and why should someone consider a career in an industry that is just beginning to develop?
MG: The opportunity is nearly endless. I am a lot less qualified than a Wall Street analyst, but the opportunity is huge. We are at the very beginning stages of what will be a global economic force -- $30 - $60 billion figures get thrown around all the time. This is one of the few times that people in my generation will have to build a brand-new industry from the ground up. But we can’t make the same mistakes that a lot of other industries have made before us. We need to learn from our past and treat this industry in a responsible and safe way so that it is economically and ecologically sustainable for everyone involved.